Today, at least in the public eye, boxing has seen more black eyes and bruises than in days of yore. Indeed, during the 1970s, even casual sports fans could not only name the current champion but also prominent contenders to the throne.
In Bouts of Mania: Ali, Frazier, Foreman, and an America on the Ropes, Richard Hoffer chronicles this “Golden Age” of boxing and American society around it. The author joined Bill Littlefield.
Highlights from Bill’s Conversation With Richard Hoffer
BL: The three heavyweights of whom you write are Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and George Foreman, and of the early 70s you’ve written, “As the country careened from one depressing disaster to the next, Ali, Frazier and Foreman gave a glimpse of better times to come.” How so?
RH: Well, I think we were mired in this time of dysfunction. We had Vietnam, we had our leaders just capitulating. I mean, this was a time when Richard Nixon resigned. It was a very discouraging time, and yet you had these three guys who were exhibiting this kind of determination and self-sacrifice and ambition, and I think it was, if nothing else, encouraging.
BL: No matter who won the fights in which these heavyweights opposed each other, as you put it, “the narrative would always belong to Ali.” Tell me a little bit about that advantage and how Muhammad Ali made it work for him.
RH: He determined the narrative and the limits and range of it. For example, before the first Frazier fight, the so-called “Fight of the Century,” Frazier was rather befuddled to learn that he had become the Great White Hope. Nobody had a more “blacker” experience than Joe Frazier, and yet here he was, the Uncle Tom.
He was just puzzled and finally outraged, but this was the genius of Ali that could recast any story to his advantage or to his purposes. Frazier did understand that this was the business of boxing. He did understand he was dealing with Ali, who could flip a promotional switch and determine a friend was suddenly a robot, a mummy or a gorilla. But even so, he could not get over, after all that time and all those insults, just this dispensation of cruelty.
BL: So much of your book has to do with not only the three men at the center of it but the time in which they lived. Can you envision a scenario in which boxing returns to prominence and once again gives us attractions the size — and scope — of Ali, Foreman and Frazier?
RH: I can’t because, number one, it depends on the heavyweight franchise which is kind of the most — or was then the most — important thing in sports. I don’t ever see that happening again. You mentioned earlier, “Who is the heavyweight champion right now?” I don’t know, honestly. I’m not even sure we have one. So to replace this kind of pandemonium again, I don’t think that can happen. I don’t think boxing has the athletes anymore. I don’t think they’re attracted to the sport. The fact that we had these three personalities, that might be a once-in-a-lifetime thing. It’s just hard to imagine that ever happening again.
Bill’s Thoughts On Bouts of Mania: Ali, Frazier, Foreman, and an America on the RopesRichard Hoffer argues that the simultaneous presence of Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, and George Foreman in boxing’s heavyweight division during the early ’70s was extraordinary. He’s right. All three men were very good at what they did, which was to beat their opponents into submission. Over the course of three fights, Ali and Frazier gave boxing fans all the blood and courage they could handle. The knockdowns Foreman recorded against Frazier might have reached double figures in less than two rounds if the referee hadn’t stopped their fight. Ali first befuddled and exhausted Foreman, then he knocked him silly.
That these three men were active at the same time provided a grand show for those who enjoy boxing, though it proved to be exceedingly unhealthy for at least two of the combatants. Hoffer also contends that what these three men did to each other and themselves “offered a strange reassurance that ambition remained possible” in the midst of troubled times in a nation that needed the boxers’ efforts to “bridge social divides” and “create a common ground.” That’s a hard point to establish, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, and Hoffer’s reach is grand and worthy of consideration. At the very least, he has joined the many other writers who have found in boxing inspiration to write powerfully and well.